by Lee Tolliver
With the stealth of a ninja, Kevin Whitley eased the kayak between two pilings in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. He dropped the bait straight down. Instantly the fiddler crab was thumped by a big sheepshead, and the tug-of-war was on.
Whitley used his paddle to push away from the structure as a large, black-striped fish rose to the surface. As several anglers on nearby boats watched in envy, he smiled. His smaller, more agile kayak let him quietly reach an area that the bigger, loud, gas-guzzling boats couldn’t, and they knew it.
There was a time when Whitley, known on the water as “Kayak Kevin,” would have drawn strange looks for his narrow, 15-foot piece of floating plastic. But the area’s kayak fishing scene has exploded. In fact, the Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association – a group formed in the early 2000s – has swelled to hundreds of members and holds kayak-dedicated fishing tournaments to raise money for several charities.
“We have the water for it,” said Cory Routh, who runs a kayak fishing guide service and was one of TKAA’s early members. “So … I’m not surprised by the rise in interest at all.”
“I have a bit of a gypsy mentality and thought about taking up hiking,” Whitley said. “But my ankles and legs aren’t hiking quality. I could paddle, though.”
Burnley was targeting the diversity of fish in the lower Chesapeake Bay and had built a small following of anglers who enjoyed the quiet of paddling, the sounds of waves lapping against plastic, the splashing of a fish right at your side.
Whitley was just a kayaker when he was turned onto the newborn fishing scene by Ric Burnley, a writer for Salt Water Sportsman and author of The Complete Kayak Fisherman. Whitley had turned to paddling in a bit of a midlife crisis. He had spent his youth on more conventional sports. His dad is Ken Whitley, the Norview High School Hall-of-Famer and wrestling coach.
Whitley went after the sport with a passion some found surprising, given his previous lack of interest in fishing.
“Grew up here but didn’t do much more than fish for spot and croaker from the pier once in a while with my family,” he said. “But there was something about being so close to the water, a oneness with the fish that you can’t get from a pier or a bigger boat.”
The kayak fishing scene seems to have grown locally in conjunction with the increasing popularity of small recording devices like GoPro cameras. Anglers often mount them on their bow, on a pole from the stern or on their hat. Some of the more ardent videographers mount multiple cameras, including underwater options.
“The production quality of some of the stuff is mind-blowing,” Routh said. “Go to YouTube these days – there’s no shortage of quality video being produced by kayak anglers.”
But video is only one small reason for the growing popularity.
Kayaks don’t require boat ramps, and they can take you into hard-to-reach spots, including skinny water (3 feet deep or less) where you can find feeding speckled trout and puppy drum, among other species. You can also haul kayaks out to sea to battle tunas and billfish or put them in freshwater rivers and go after largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill.
And while a gas boat and gear can run you several thousands of dollars,
beginners can usually get decent starter kayaks for about $1,000. Annual upkeep is far less expensive, as well.
“And there is lots of used stuff out there, as more anglers upgrade their yaks,” Routh said, adding that the TKAA website forum is a good place to look for equipment and help.
But for many anglers, like Whitley, the most appealing aspect of kayak fishing is its connection to nature. Being on a small craft, close to the water, you can hear everything and see everything. The fishing is almost secondary.
At the bay bridge-tunnel, Whitley made another drop and looked around at the commotion of boats around him. As they disappeared from sight, he got another hit, and smiled: “No oil, no gas, no noise.”